Rodney King, the man whose beating by police helped spark a riot and who asked an achingly resonant question – “Can we all get along?” – barely lived long enough to reflect on his cultural influence 20 years later.
"Understand that we all can get along," he said in an interview with KPCC's Patt Morrison in April. "It will always be my saying and that's how I want to be remembered."
King, best known as the man who was beaten nearly to death by Los Angeles Police Department officers, died at 47 on Sunday. He was found dead at the bottom of a pool in the early morning by his fiance, who had spoken to him a short time before she heard a splash and rushed outside. Police said they are investigating his death as an accidental drowning. He was
Civil rights leaders, and people who knew and worked with King are reacting with shock and sadness, and also remembering King's place in history.
"Rodney King was a symbol of civil rights and he represented the anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling movement of our time," the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement.
Footage of the March 1991 beating, taped by bystander George Holliday, gained international attention and ultimately sparked the 1992 L.A. Riots. It shows several LAPD officers striking a defenseless King with batons while other officers stood watching. (Warning, violent content):
The video caused public outrage, escalating tensions between the local black community and Los Angeles law enforcement. The 1992 acquittal of the officers charged in King's beating triggered days of rioting, at least 54 deaths and $1 billion in property damage. Such was the power of the initial and resulting riots images that filmmaker Spike Lee used it as a prologue to his epic film “Malcolm X.” Numerous rappers referenced the beating and the riots that followed the cops’ acquittal.
Twenty years after the riots, Rodney King told Morrison that he no longer had trouble watching the video.
"Now, I look at it with a smile because I made it alive," he said. "Not only that — I shouldn't have made it through it, I shouldn't have made it through that beating. And I know that. I should have been dead that night."
King said he had forgiven everyone involved in the incident.
"God has forgiven many people on this Earth. Not only that, but people have forgiven me over the years ... so why wouldn't I forgive them? I would have to forgive them, because I wouldn't want to go to bed with all that anger every day, being mad about something that you have no control over," he continued.
With the proceeds from a settlement with LAPD, King established a hip-hop label that quickly went bust. And King continued to have run-ins with the police during his struggle with alcohol, but he said all the officers treated him with respect. In the interview, King acknowledged his mistakes, and how they shaped his philosophy of self-improvement.
"If you have a conscience, then save yourself. If you don't have a conscience then you have to get one," he said.
King released a book in April titled "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption," documenting his struggles to heal after the beating. His positive outlook on the incident and his personal struggles also showed in his optimism about the country.
"I've seen a lot of things, and I just see a better side in America," he said. "I've always worked toward peace."